Social Work graduate program makes diversity, community its mission

Jan. 31, 2006

by Daniel Uttech

By increasing diversity and equity within its own program, the School of Social Work’s graduate program has been succeeding in the campuswide mission to create community. The key lies within the soul of social work, which is change. One of the many things social workers do is empower others to change their positions in life. Mirroring that job description, the school is also open to change and is working with students to make their lives better.

“In class, I experienced being the one singled out or the one who had to answer questions on specific cultures, race or ethnicity,” second-year graduate student Erica Galindo says. “That was bothersome, but then I was able to talk to people, to faculty.”

Galindo spoke with assistant professor Tracy Schroepfer and learned about an old student organization, Students Helping Achieve Racial Equality (SHARE), and the Retention and Recruitment of Students of Color Committee (RRSCC). She quickly became the student representative on RRSCC and revived SHARE into its current status as Students Helping Achieve Diversity and Equality (SHADE).

“Being able to start SHADE, I feel very lucky and happy with my experience,” Galindo says. “If you don’t change (things), who will?”

Graduate student Magda Kmiecik, treasurer of SHADE, has also seen positive change within the School of Social Work as well as the entire campus. Kmiecik, a former investment banker, first attended UW-Madison as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

“The biggest change is that you have faculty that are committed to helping students achieve diversity. Back then, nobody was facilitating students. It was very confrontational,” Kmiecik says. “Now students can talk and look at what’s there and what might be needed. Erica spearheaded (SHADE) and just saw more that could be done and more opportunities that could be provided.”

Inviting the involvement and input of students like Galindo and Kmiecik has created a solid community within the School of Social Work.

“What we try to do is not have a hierarchy of faculty, then staff, then students,” Schroepfer says. “We all need to continue this community, and we all need to be supportive of each other.”

That community is one of the big reasons the social work graduate program has one of the highest diversity rates on campus. According to the university’s 2004-05 Data Digest, released by the Office of Budget, Planning and Analysis, 8 percent of UW-Madison’s enrolled graduate students as of fall 2004 were ethnic minorities. Fourteen percent of the master’s students in social work were ethnic minorities.

The RRSCC is another reason the school’s percentages are where they are. But for the committee, its main goal isn’t about the numbers; it’s about increasing student input, improving students’ experiences and increasing diversity and equity.

“Because of the energy (the RRSCC) is putting in and the fun energy that they’re putting in, they’ve attracted a lot of students to come in and join in and do a lot of work,” School of Social Work director Aaron Brower says. “Because of that, the students feel like they have real ownership in the work that’s being done.”

The annual spring brunch, potlucks and monthly speakers highlight the committee’s planned activities. Students are able to speak with other students, faculty and staff in informal, relaxed atmospheres. SHADE social events are just beginning as well and are open to all students. At the spring brunches, alumni speak with graduating students who speak to current and prospective students.

“We put the whole picture together,” Schroepfer says.

Part of that picture is recruiting students, which again involves community. The school has reached out to local churches, Madison Area Technical College, Edgewood College, the Madison Times and radio stations, focusing on personalized, lasting relationships and strong connections with people. Another key to recruiting involves current students enlightening prospective students about the school.

“With recruiting, you’ve got students talking to students instead of parents, adults, advisers or professors or people who seem pretty remote to them. I think that’s one feature that’s been very powerful,” Brower says.

“We tell (students of color) to be as honest as possible because we don’t want to bring students here and have students leave,” Schroepfer adds. “We don’t want to set them up.”

SHADE and the School of Social Work look to continue creating community through honesty this semester with dialogues regarding cultural competency. In collaboration with the YWCA racial justice program, Galindo, SHADE and others will lead students, faculty and staff in dialogues. These dialogues will address race and societal issues within the school and the community.

“Part of (cultural competence) is that we all come with a cultural context,” Brower says. “In order for anyone to talk to anyone you’ve got to have an awareness of your own cultural context so that you can reach out to people who are of different cultural contexts.”

If change is one of the keys to social work, listening to clients’ needs is just as important. The School of Social Work and the RRSCC are doing that by listening to students, bringing them together to talk and creating dialogues. It is a model that has helped the school win a National Science Foundation grant to evaluate strategies to increase graduate student diversity, a $200,000 award over the next two years. UW-Madison will team with seven universities, and the School of Social Work will evaluate five departments on campus.

“There are some things that work well for us and some things that don’t, and I think that there are probably things that other departments are doing and we’ve never thought of,” Schroepfer says. “We need to work together as much as possible to see that we can bring in students of color to university systems and give them the opportunity to receive an education and to feel successful about it.”